still enjoy hunting deer and turkey in the fall and winter, especially
around the holidays, but when it comes to harvesting game that's about
the only similarity between today and yesterday.
In the late 19th century, those who saw themselves as equal to the
"Deerslayer's" Natty Bumppo did not behave very sportingly, at least
not by comparison to 21st century standards. Consider:
went out when the game did, paying no attention to the calendar
or the clock
they see anything wrong with killing as many animals as they could,
often just for the heck of it
Nor did they
worry about how they did it, either hunting at night with lights,
using dogs to chase down deer or using fowling pieces only slightly
less powerful than a modern anti-aircraft battery
settlers found plenty of game in Texas, which fed the notion that
wildlife amounted to a constantly renewing resource. Most hunters
saw no need to restrain themselves.
"Geese and ducks were innumerable," J.W. Lockhart wrote of the Texas
he first saw in 1837, "deer by the thousands - sometimes we could
count from 100 to 150 in a bunch." Not only that, he continued, "…deer,
turkey and other game were comparatively gentle and easy of approach."
Back then, having fresh meat on the table presented no greater challenge
than stepping out the front door of your log cabin and sighting your
rifle on the choicest deer or gobbler.
Denton County Judge
T.D. Ferguson, who had ridden with the Texas Rangers in the early
1860s, recalled a hunt in what later became Archer County.
"I know that it's pretty hard to believe in this day," he said in
1896, "but around the camp those little post oaks were completely
covered with wild turkeys. There were thousands, yes, ten of thousands
of them…Every other kind of game was the same way. On the plains it
looked as though it were one solid mass of buffaloes, while deer,
wolves, antelope and the like were in great abundance and were tame
to almost fearlessness."
The abundance of game continued for decades. In the fall of 1887,
the Dallas Morning News reported that a party from Chappell
Hill in Washington
County had recently returned from a hunt in the Big
Thicket. They had killed 22 deer. (In many Texas
counties today, the limit is only one buck per hunter per season.)
Earlier that year, a commercial hunting party sold 26 sets of venison
hams in Pecos.
One of the hunters reported that they also had killed "some wildcats,
foxes, wolves and one bear." A correspondent for the Dallas newspaper
observed: "The Davis Mountains should be set aside for a public hunting
park. They are hard to beat."
Twelve years later, noted Austin
lawyer "Buck" Walton and seven others spent two weeks hunting in LaSalle
"Major Walton stated that up to the time he left the party had killed
25 deer, about 30 javelinas and innumerable partridges [a common,
if incorrect, early description of quail]," the New reported. "We
made our camp about 30 miles west of Cotulla,"
Walton said. "We had fine sport hunting. It is a veritable sportsmen's
But over hunting eventually took its toll. As Judge Ferguson said
when interviewed shortly before the turn of the 20th century, "Those
good old days are gone, never to return."
Ferguson was right on the first count, wrong on the other.
By the 1880s, biologists and others who understand that wildlife in
Texas had been under too much hunting pressure for too long prevailed
on the legislature to pass the state's first hunting law.
Getting used to the new law took some adjusting on the part of Texans,
James Hogg. Judging from a Feb. 27, 1894 account in the Dallas
newspaper, he seems to have forgotten that February was not deer season.
His lapse of memory or judgment came to the attention of the press,
which led the Santa Fe New Mexican to editorialize that if Hogg had
indeed shot a deer out of season "he is a law-breaker and he ought
to be punished."
Thanks to the establishment of seasons and limits as well as the serious
enforcement of those laws, by the early 1950s the Texas deer herd
had come back. Once again, many rural Texans can shoot a deer from
their doorway if they want - provided they have a license and its
© Mike Cox
November 16, 2016
Originally published December 21, 2006 column
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